MGM // 1977 // 163 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 2nd, 2011
The war was over and the world was falling in love again.
"Will you marry me? Will you marry me? I love you. Will you marry me? I don't want anybody else to be with you. I don't want anybody else. I want to be with you, do you understand? I don't want anybody else to be with you except me. I love you. I love you. Look at me. I love you."
A hotshot saxophone player named Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull) meets a talented singer named Francine Evans (Liza Minelli, Arthur) on V-J Day. Their initial meeting is strained to say the least, but somehow one encounter leads to a musical partnership that leads to a romantic relationship. As the careers of Jimmy and Francine start to rise, their relationship sadly begins to crumble. Over the course of several years, the saxophone player and the singer enjoy some dizzying highs and some devastating lows.
Before filming began, Martin Scorsese had immense confidence that New York, New York was going to be a masterpiece. Hot off the success of his acclaimed Taxi Driver, Scorsese took his ambition to the next level and attempted to fuse largely improvisational, verite-style modern filmmaking techniques with the polished, artificial glamour of '40s Technicolor musicals. Scorsese was so confident that his vision would work out well that he plunged into filming without a script, then proceeded to take the shoot considerably over time and over budget. He initially produced a cut of the film that ran four and a half hours long. He eventually whittled that down to 153 minutes (which was released in theatres and was a complete flop), and then turned in a 136-minute cut in an attempt to quell complaints that the film was too long. Unfortunately, this cut of the film unwisely removed one of its finest sequences (the "Happy Endings" musical segment).
Several years later (after the director had completed Raging Bull and freed himself from the unforgiving grip of cocaine), Scorsese released a definitive cut of the film that ran 163 minutes. It's the best version of the film and the most cohesive, but there's no doubt that the film is still a very hit-and-miss experience at times. It's clearly the product of near-mad ambition, but it's neither a Heaven's Gate-level flop or a surprisingly transcendent success like Apocalypse Now. Instead, New York, New York is an alternately intriguing and exasperating film peppered with a handful of knockout sequences.
Though music is almost omnipresent in the film, the first two-thirds are dominated by the largely improvised dialogue scenes between De Niro and Minnelli. While both turn in very strong work, the unscripted nature of the scenes often allows them to get repetitive (De Niro in particular has a tendency to repeat his key lines over and over until he feels they've made a sufficient impression). The contrast between the gritty relationship drama and the razzle-dazzle of the musical sequences is quite effective, but it also makes the film exhausting. The characters are so well-drawn early on that there's a sense of "been there, done that" during supposedly revelatory later moments. Even in his early scenes as a flirty charmer, Jimmy comes across as an oppressively aggressive and needy figure; almost everything that follows is a more explicit variation on that idea. Still, De Niro is fascinating to watch throughout; he brings so much tension-filled energy to scenes that other actors would have floundered in. Minnelli fares quite well in the less showy role (at least in terms of acting; she gets the bigger musical sequences), effectively conveying her character's growing fatigue.
Around the two-hour mark or so, it begins to feel as if the film has just about run out of steam. Jimmy and Francine have been there and back again, and we certainly aren't up for another forty-five minutes of shouting matches between them. Fortunately, Scorsese has a thrilling ace up his sleeve, suddenly turning to the lengthy aforementioned "Happy Endings" sequence. Essentially this film's equivalent of Judy Garland's "Born in a Trunk" sequence from A Star is Born, the sequence gives Scorsese an opportunity to really put together a classic movie musical sequence and thrill audiences with some of that Old Hollywood razzle-dazzle. This is quickly followed by Minelli's fantastic performance of the famous title song, giving much of the third act a giddy energy that serves as a perfect warm-up for the achingly downbeat conclusion Scorsese delivers. If nothing else, New York, New York finishes strong. It feels like it ought to be one of the iconic conclusions of '70s cinema, but the whole of the film simply wasn't consistent enough to bring it that level of regard.
Unfortunately, New York, New York arrives on Blu-ray sporting a rather disappointing 1080p/1.66:1 transfer. The image is excessively grainy throughout, which detracts significantly from the visual polish Scorsese tries to bring to some of his sequences. The picture is also terribly soft much of the time; check out the scene in which Minelli is singing around 2:09 and you'll be convinced that you're watching a sub-par DVD. While a few moments manage to sparkle, overall this is a weak transfer (though it admittedly looks dramatically better than the standard-def release that came out a few years ago). The sound is similarly frustrating: while the music mostly sounds respectable (and thank goodness for that), the dialogue is frequently very muffled. During the scenes in which De Niro is shouting, there's a lot of distortion. There are also passages of dialogue that seem to drop out a bit too often. Extras are ported over from the 30th Anniversary DVD release: a commentary with Scorsese and Carrie Rickey, an introduction by Scorsese, a two-part documentary on the film's making (51 minutes), a 22-minute interview with Liza Minelli, some alternate takes and deleted scenes and a select-scene commentary from Laszlo Kovacs.
It's a troubled film made during a troubled time in Martin Scorsese's life, but New York, New York still has more than enough virtues to make it a worthwhile experience. Too bad this Blu-ray release doesn't look and sound stronger.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 163 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Alternate/Deleted Scenes